Creating a fitness program for grade school age kids is both a science and an art.
When I first began working with kids, fresh out of coaching at the Olympic Training Center in San Diego, I was all science. I quickly realized that neither kids nor parents “got” such a calculated approach. Boredom and disengagement ensued.
In a panic to retain clients and make a name for myself, I swung the pendulum too far the other way.
Consequently, I found with too much art and not enough science, planning programs was difficult. I was just throwing “stuff” together to get kids to breath hard, so there was very little method to the madness. Kids did have fun at first, but over time, it became hard to prove the value of the program to both kids and parents since no observable progression was occurring. Additionally, injuries from falling and colliding were becoming more commonplace.
It didn’t take long to see that neither of these extremes were the way to go.
Since these early days, I’ve collaborated with all kinds of youth development experts on both the science and art of creating youth fitness programs. I’ve taken what I’ve learned and experimented with dozens of different youth fitness program designs that are safe, effective, and most of all, fun, for kids under 12. Actually, kids and adults over 12 enjoy them as well, but they work especially well with the short attention spans and rapidly developing bodies of youngsters.
I still experiment with different designs for different numbers of kids, ages, and environments but the youth program template I share with you today has been the most successful in combining the science of teaching kids important skills with the art of creating a fun, play-like training environment. It has been most successful with kids 7-11 and is based on a 60- minute training session.
SPIDERstart (5 Minutes)
No lining up, no pre-workout talk. They show up, we start playing a game or activity. These activities require very little space and little to no equipment. Generally, anyone can join at any time. There is no warm-up prior to these activities, so they are usually in place, sensory-skill based games.
Cone Quick Draw
Warm Up/Sensory Prep (10 minutes)
The beginning of a program is an ideal time to wire the brain and body together. That’s why I like to insert all kinds of unique movement challenges to prep the sensory system.
I chose a combination of about 5-6 locomotion (running, skipping, etc.) or stationary movement control activities (jumping jacks, push -ups, squats, etc.). For each, I insert 3 or 4 contrasting “movement variables”. Movement Variables are variations to a movement involving effort, space, and/or relationships.
For example, a skip (locomotion) done slow then fast (effort variables), arms wide then narrow (relationships), done forward then backward (space).
I then chose 4-5 more abstract movement words like “creep”, “pounce”, “explode” and others that require a degree of individual interpretation. I call these words out and the kids can move however they feel.
Finally, I put 3 words together into a “movement sentence”. For example “Roll, fly, hide”. The kids then have to perform their interpretation of each movement in a “flow” from one movement to the next. They continue this flow until I call out another 3 words. I’ll usually include 2-3 movement sentences.
- Jumping Jacks: Fast then slow, Moving forward then backward
- Skipping: Knees high then low, Legs wide then narrow, In a circle then zigzag
- Push ups: Arms wide then narrow, Continuous then stop and go, Matching then mirroring a partner
- Lateral shuffles: Hips high then low, Around someone or something, In a “C” path
- 1-Leg balance: Arms high then low, Arms and legs symmetrical then asymmetrical,
- Grow, Spin, Shrink
- Sprint, Stop, Shake
Skill of the Day (5 minutes)
Right after we have been warming up and creating the brain/body link, it’s an ideal time to introduce a new movement skill, or advanced criteria for a current skill. This isn’t merely performing a stationary movement, locomotion, or manipulative skill; it’s practicing some aspect of the skill in order to improve.
For example, take the stationary movement control skill of performing a push up. Break it down into foundational components:
- Holding a push-up plank
- Practicing “gripping” the ground
- Practice with feet against the wall
- Perform eccentric push ups
Take this opportunity for kids to learn how to execute skills correctly, but only focus on 1 aspect of the movement a day. That way, as the child performs that movement in other games and activities, the new aspect of the skill can be reinforced without overwhelm.
1-2 Movement Skill or Sensory Awareness Games (5-10 minutes)
Here is where we play a group or partner game that focuses on either the skill of the day or another sensory skill. This can also be a “just for fun” game to get the kids moving. I often change the game criteria every few minutes. For example, if we’re doing a “tag” based game, the criteria for being “it” may change frequently.
This portion of the program usually concludes with a game that kids into groups, coinciding with the number of circuit stations that will be done. For example, if there are 5 stations and 30 kids, the activity should get them into groups of 6.
Shark Island (for groups) (Click for video!)
Circuit stations (10-15 Minutes)
Create 5 stations (more or less, depending on the attention span of the kids.) Ideally, alternate each station:
- Locomotion skills (Running, skipping, crawling, etc. around cones, over/under barriers, etc.)
- Stationary movement control (Callasthenics with or without implements,)
- Manipulative skill (throwing, catching, dribbling, kicking, etc.)
At each station, you can create mini obstacle courses, cone drills, etc. Run each station for 30-60 seconds, then rotate the kids to the next station in 30 seconds. Repeat the entire circuit 2 times.
Station 1: Balance Lean and Touch
Station 2: Cone circles (Click for video!)
Station 3: Crawl (Click for video!)
Station 4: Agility Ladder Lateral (Click for video!)
Station 5: Push and Pull (Click for video!)
Group Game or Conditioning Activity (5-10 Minutes)
Near the end of the session here, we’ll either play a game, do some sort of group competition, or something that is relatively physical strenuous. Relays, races, challenges and other activities work well here. This should be the “crescendo” of the session.
Dirty and Clean
Cool down/Self regulation (5-10 Minutes)
Traditionally, static stretching is done at the end of training for youngsters. For grade school age children, static stretching in and of itself is not very effective for improving ROM, and can actually be damaging for really young children who lack joint stability.
While static stretching can still be introduced here, self-regulation activities that highlight sensory awareness, mindful breathing, or gratitude are a better use of time.
Breakdown (60 Seconds)
Bring all kids together on a final word. Give them a quick quiz on what they learned. Provide them a challenge for when they go home.
The above template takes between 50-60 minutes, depending on how well you are organized. Setting up the circuits prior to the children arriving is critical. Having a plan makes sure that kids are constantly engaged and flow from one activity to another seamlessly. Activities are changed every 5 minutes or so, so they do not become bored.
Even with a rudimentary knowledge of exercise and physical activity, this template can be used to keep kids engaged and learning. Activities and drills do not have to be elaborate. As a matter of fact, often the most basic activities are the most effective.
Whether training to be a better athlete, or to merely enjoy being active, this template is powerful tool for inspiring grade school children to lifelong fitness and athletic performance!
For more information on how to quickly design fun and effective programs for youth, check out SPIDERfit Kids’ programming resources!